WORKS: Complete Symphonies
PERFORMER: SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington
CATALOGUE NO: SACD-No.93.267
This series of live recordings from July 2005 (previously issued on DVD in 2006 with spoken introductions by the conductor) is Sir Roger Norrington’s second cycle of Brahms’s symphonies in which he tries to get back to ‘the sound world of Brahms’s time’ by ‘applying historical values to modern orchestral playing’.
His EMI recordings with the London Classical Players used 19th-century instruments, while the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra uses modern ones, but the principles remain the same: ‘pure tone’ without Frenchified vibrato; 19th-century articulation and bowing; a balance of double wind with 60 strings (though occasionally reducing to single wind and 30 strings to approximate the small forces Brahms favoured in Meiningen); the orchestral players positioned with first and second violins opposite each other and basses at the rear; and – following the evidence of some of Brahms’s earliest conductors – ‘no very slow tempi’, and no exaggerated differences between fast and slow.
I enjoyed Norrington’s previous Brahms series, with reservations, and I tremendously admire his German Requiem for EMI, so it’s with regret that I have to say that I can’t rate this new(ish) set very highly. I applaud presenting a Brahms cleaned of the stodge and patina of hoary tradition, and have no problems with Norrington’s evaluation of the performance issues. But though these readings may well be valid as an impression of how the music could have sounded in Brahms’s day, as performances they leave me cold.
Beyond their distinctive sound they seem superficial. The opening of No. 1, taken unusually fast, strikes me as entirely lacking in drama, as does the lollopy jog-trot at which Norrington takes the first movement of No. 4. His liking for quick tempos, light phrasing, combined with an anti-sentimental refusal to let the music expand, suits the intermezzos of Nos 1-3 and No. 4’s scherzo, but leads everywhere else, I feel, to a diminution of expression, a disturbing matter-of-factness. Charles Mackerras’s similarly authenticist readings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc) are to my mind much more powerfully and satisfyingly shaped and felt.
The playing and the recording quality, it should be said, are excellent. The interplay of the divided strings is very clear. The woodwind players are absolutely top-notch, and I especially enjoyed their contributions in the first movement of No. 3, which of all the performances probably comes off best. Perhaps it’s just me: I tried hard to like this set, but to no avail. Calum MacDonald